Food Party!

By popular request, this is a post about how to prepare and host a fun group meal using one of the many combination tabletop grill and hotpot appliances that are available. Mine is literally called Food Party and it never fails to delight. Friday Food Party has become a pandemic tradition in our house. I only wish more people could join us, as there’s way too much food for only three people!

There are a number of traditional and non traditional types of hot pots, tabletop grilling, and combination meals. You could style your food party after the Thai Mu Kratha, or combine sukiyaki and shabu-shabu like the noted chef and author Tadashi Ono suggests in his must-read book Japanese Hot Pots (BUY THIS BOOK, most of what I am going to say here is cribbed from it and I still reference it all the time). You could take any cuisine with traditions of soup and grilling and combine them in a pleasing manner. Or you could get creative and come up with your own ideas! We’ve done macrobiotic (mostly) food party, Izakaya food party, oden food party, Peruvian food party, and Caribbean food party. I plan to do a Ukranian food party and an Indian food party soon, and my kids are clamoring for a kid food party (not one where we eat them, a party with kid friendly food).

I’m going to break down how I do my basic food party, but I mix it up pretty much every week. If I’m doing a themed party I try to research some appetizers, dips, and sides that go with the theme so it’s not just broth, veggies, and proteins, but a party! First, some basic equipment. You will definitely want, for each person at the table: mini tongs, a silicon basting brush, chopsticks or other utensils, a spoon, a small mesh strainer with a long handle to scoop items out of the hot broth, a plate, a small soup bowl, and as many small condiment dishes as you need for each person to have their own selection of sides, garnishes, dipping sauce, and appetizers. You really can’t have too many small containers, bowls and plates.

For food prep:
I use a plastic grate and keep grater. I use this to quickly grate ginger and daikon, but it’s also “grate” for apples if you make Japanese curry from scratch or want to sweeten a box roux. A set of stainless steel vegetable cutters in a range of sizes is really handy for making carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash and other veggies into hot pot friendly shapes. Small wooden or stainless steel skewers are useful.

Essential food prep pantry/fridge items (for me, you may find you prefer others):
tonkotsu broth concentrate (I use two to produce broth for 1 of the two hot pot bowls)
umami dashi broth sachets – lots of different styles or you can make your own broth
quick pickle powder (there are a lot of different styles and flavors, try a few and see what you prefer)
• dried seaweed salad or hijiki
• soba, udon, somen, ramen, shirataki, or vermicelli noodles
• sushi rice and seasoning
• toasted sesame seeds
• rice vinegar, light soy sauce, tamari or soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, ponzu, Kewpie mayo, and other staple condiments
• yellow or red miso paste,
• yuzu kosho, wasabi, momiji-orishi (spicy red grated daikon) – you can get these last 3 in a set of small paste tubes from various Japanese brands like S&B.
I’ll add more pantry items as I think of them, but this should get you up and running.

Fresh veggies that show up at most of my food parties:
• Napa cabbage – I slice some using the method demonstrated by Tadashi Ono in his book and place them in the bottom of each hot pot bowl. I blanch some of the larger leaves for spinach cabbage rolls. And I shred some for quick pickling. If there’s leftovers I shred and store and make okonomiyaki the next day.
• carrots – cut into small cute shapes for the broth (kids love these), shredded for quick pickles
• radish – thin sliced for quick pickles
• mushrooms – shiitake, enoki, bunashimeji, maitake, trumpet – have fun! I usually incorporate 2 different types
• shungiku – if you can’t find this, arugula is nice to put in the broth, but shungiku has a nicer texture and bite
• scallions – green parts diced and served to each diner in the garnish dish
• Daikon – grated and served in the garnish dish, thin sliced or shape-cut for quick pickles, thick sliced for takuan (make this a few days ahead)
• white, yellow, or purple yam/sweet potato – cut medium thickness into larger fun shapes for the soup broth
• japanese eggplant – sliced thin for making nasu dengaku
• green shiso/oba leaves – for presentation of side dishes like fried oysters or korokke, minced to add to drinks or to make fish cakes or tsukune. If you can’t get or grow fresh shiso leaves, this also comes in a paste tube.

I tend not to marinate any protein that might be dipped in the broths so as not to mix flavors too much, but if it’s a grill-only item, there are lots of marinade options. I try to get a wide variety of proteins in very small amounts so there’s not too much waste but everyone gets a lot of unique bites.
• pork/pork belly – I don’t eat pork much, but it’s pretty standard at a lot of hotpot/grill meals (mu kratha translates to “pan pork” for example)
• beef – sukiyaki or shabu-shabu cut if you can get it, otherwise get the nicest cut of marbled beef (skirt, flank, or bohemian cut steaks) and slice it as thinly as you can against the grain, wagyu is lovely
• chicken – cube, marinate, and skewer chicken, breasts or thighs, or make tsukune!
• seafood – a natural for food party. small, de-shelled lobster tails, tail on de-shelled shellfish, salmon, otoro or tuna steaks, yellowtail, mussels, clams, oysters, scallops, roe – as fresh as possible and a nice variety.
• fish cakes – you can make your own, or you can get oden sets at Japanese markets. Thai fish balls are fantastic in mu kratha
• tofu – fried tofu puffs or baked tamari tofu cubes, seitan or tempeh are all great tofu options. I also serve inari sushi as a side, or put inari pockets in the noodle bowls.

There’s virtually no limit to how many and what kind of dips to prepare. You can also buy or order a lot of premade dips and sauces. Commonly made dips for my food party:
• sukiyaki sauce
• gomo shabu (one of the few dips I buy premade, I can never get it smooth enough at home)
• miso-tahini sauce
• sesame ginger sauce
• ginger ponzu sauce with extra yuzu, I love yuzu so much
• carrot-ginger dressing
• yum-yum sauce or spicy mayo
• bulldog sauce (for dipping fried oysters or korokke)

Sides and apps:
• I always try to include multiple pickles at every food party, unless pickles are not a traditional component of the cuisine I’m foregrounding – but that’s pretty rare. Pickles are super helpful to cut the richness of such a heavy meal. I am obsessed with quick pickling but I also appreciate the readymade pickles you can buy or order.
• green salad or seaweed salad – adds a note of freshness
• fried oysters or korokke
• onigiri or veggie maki, or inari sushi with ikura or tobiko – I keep these light and veggie forward as you will fill up very quickly!
• japanese potato salad (again, keep portions small)

Preparation tips:
• I make as many things a day or two ahead as I can. Some of the dips and sauces actually deepen in flavor if they spend 2 days in the fridge.
• periodically I make large batches of korokke/gyoza/tsukune and freeze them so I just need to take out and thaw a few the night before.
• I make the cabbage spinach rolls the night before or morning of. Same with the quick pickles. Takuan is really best after several days.
• sweet potato and squash and carrot shapes can me done the night before or day of.
• obviously any protein marinades should be initiated the day before
• the morning of the food party, I cook the noodles, rinse the extra starch off, and massage just enough sesame oil in to prevent sticking. Then you can store them until just before.
• arrange the soup ingredients in each hotpot bowl pleasingly *before* you add the broths. That keeps everything pretty. At least until people start fishing around for carrot stars.
• I make two broths on the stovetop – typically 4-6 cups of each flavor, add them to the hotpot bowls and simmer about 10 minutes before people sit down to eat.
• grated ginger and daikon the morning of – daikon gets realllly stinky the longer it sits around!
• shell and devein any shrimp/prawns/lobster tail, remove the scallop collars, scrub shellfish and check for bad ones the morning of
• I clean the table and set up the place settings and food party as soon as I can the morning of food party. A lot of prep time is simply bringing all those dips, garnishes, and food to the table so the more you can do ahead the faster food party will come together
• obviously, any fried items should be in the fryer as you’re bringing everything else to the table so they will be crisp and hot as everyone sits down.

I’ll add to this as I think of any other points, but I hope this is helpful as you plan your own food party.